Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Gilder, O'Leary, and lactose

In Part Four, The hierarchy of information vs. "nothing but", of Denyse O'Leary five part series on George Gilder, there is an interesting little detail.

O'Leary writes:

Regarding the "causes of economic growth," its [sic] worth remembering that - at every stage - "economic growth" is first and foremost an idea in the minds of men. It always begins with an idea of a better life - clean water or public schools, for example. The material advance follows the idea. Without the idea the advance never happens. Ignoring this principle has led to much waste in foreign aid efforts by wealthy countries. Why? Because things have been forced on people as "improvements" before they wanted or cared about them, and they responded by ignoring, subverting, or destroying them.

So, instead of just forcing our things on other people, we also have to force our ideas on them.

O'Leary continues:

Example: My own country (Canada) once exported tins of powdered milk to a poor country where the malnourished people did not normally drink milk after they were weaned. But the recipients threw away the powdered milk and used only the aluminum tins! The people were not stupid. They easily understood the value of the tins in their daily life. But they did not understand the value of the milk. They did not know about the importance of proteins in the diet. So an effort to improve health in that region did not depend on supplying a physical substance such as powdered milk. It depended on getting the people to accept the idea that a higher protein diet would alleviate illness and the idea that the donated powdered milk could help them do so. In that case, only a change at the highest level of the system (the ideas in the minds of men) could change centuries of misery. Indeed, once they accepted the idea, they might seek local sources of milk, and might not end up needing much help from Canada.

See, things are not that simple. To metabolize lactose, an ingredient in milk and other dairy products, you need the enzyme lactase, an enzyme produced, for obvious reasons, by young mammals, but usually not by adult mammals. For humans, the production generally cease between the ages two and five. This is called lactose intolerance (Wikipedia article).

Northern Europeans (and people elsewhere of Northern European origin) with their long tradition of living on dairy products have very few lactose intolerant people, whereas among African Bantus 89% are lactose intolerant, and among Native Americans 100% are lactose intolerant. So, it's not just a question of giving people the idea that milk is healthy, because maybe it isn't.

It is not possible from O'Leary's short story above to see, if the milk was cow milk or plant milk, and if it was cow milk, whether it had been treated with lactose catalysing bacteria or another process with the same purpose. But all in all, it is possible that the milk powder was thrown away, becayúse it really wasn't healthy.

It's not just a question of ideas, lactose intolerance is real, not hysteria, and lactose tolerance is due to a mutation that is most widespread among Northern Europeans. So whether O'Leary likes it or not, she has unknowingly touched upon a subject that favors the evil Darwinists rather than the good IDists.

See also
Gilder, O'Leary, and Dawkins
The ID dilemma

Monday, December 04, 2006

Gilder, O'Leary, and Dawkins

Denyse O'Leary has on her ARN blog, The ID Report, a five part series on Why is tech guru George Gilder not a Darwinist? The second part, Life as architecture of ideas or information, is particularly interesting.

George Gilder is co-founder of the Discovery Institute, a born-again Christian, and he likes glass-fiber cables, so all in all, he is indeed a tech guru.

O'Leary starts out with:

As Gilder explains in his National Review article, the tormented computer genius Alvin Turing stressed that a computer is not wires and metal but "its architecture of ideas."

We'll ignore that it is 'Alan Turing', and only pick up the notion that it is not the material implementation that matters. It's a funny thing with anti-evolutionists: that they believe that all evolutionists are materialists, and that therefore anyone who is not a materialist must be one of their heroes.

My point in this post is to show that by that reasoning, Richard Dawkins must belong right up there with Allan Turing as an ID hero.

O'Leary continues:

Most writers understand this concept quite easily, actually. A book for which the publisher has forwarded $50 000 advance can be lodged on a computer whose market value is $500 - and whose scrap value is 50 cents. The ideas give value to the computer, not the other way around.

Really, it was no different in the days of pen and paper or clay tablets. It was always the ideas that gave value to the material objects, not the other way round.

Yes, we understand this concept quite easily; but, may we ask, is O'Leary aware that 99% of all clay tablets found deal with economic transactions: so and so much grain is paid in tax, so and so much silver is paid in for some goods, and so on. Transactions describing movements of material objects. And without some material embodyment, the architecture of ideas in a computer is of little use.

But ok, we live in the Age of Information, and we have known that for some time, so what is O'Leary's real point?

Of course, that 'Darwinian materialism' must be provable wrong. To this purpose, O'Leray quotes Gilder for the following:

I came to see that the computer offers an insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism. In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer's materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations. In the usual hierarchy of causation, they reflect the software or "source code" used to program the device; and, like the design of the computer itself, the software is contrived by human intelligence.

What Darwinian materialism? Unfortunately, materialism can refer to quite a gamut of ideas (ironic, ne'est-ce pas?); but usually implies something about the primacy of matter over ideas, whatever happens to be meant by 'ideas'. For instance, in Marxist historical materialism, the word 'materialism' refers to primacy of material production over the ideology; that is, the organization of material production causes ideologies rather than the other way around. This is obviously a very different kind of materialism than Democritus of Abdera's dictum, "There is nothing but atoms and space, everything else is only an opinion".

O'Leary shortly after writes:

Consider Shannon's concept of entropy. "News" or information cannot be described by purely physical or chemical theories. We can easily see why this is so if we think about it. To you, information is what your mind accepts as information. For example, the discovery via an e-mail that someone you love really prefers someone else [!] is information to you. To the computer, the key information was only more bits 'n bytes. As Gilder says, "Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information."

Yes, of course, but who doesn't know this? And anyway, Gilder in the quoted passage gets things wrong. There is quite a difference between whether something is determined and whether it is known to be determined, and even if it is known to be determined, whether the entire causal chain is known. If I flip a coin, I have reason to believe that it is fully determined whether it lands heads up or tails up; there is not some fairy that manipulates it underways. Yet I cannot predict the outcome, except statistically.

If I receive an e-mail, the content of that e-mail is fully determined; it doesn't randomly change just because I open and read it. Whether it is information for me or not is a different matter, so O'Leary and Gilder are confusing knowledge and determination.

Quoting Gilder, O'Leary writes:

in all the sciences I studied, information comes first, and regulates the flesh and the world, not the other way around. The pattern seemed to echo some familiar wisdom. Could it be, I asked myself one day in astonishment, that the opening of St. John's Gospel, In the beginning was the Word, is a central dogma of modern science?

If information is something that can only be picked up by a mind, how can information regulate "the flesh and the world"? And, as for the Gospel of John, it was the Word of God, not just any old word.

And a paragraph later:

I can now affirm the principle empirically. Salient in virtually every technical field from quantum theory and molecular biology to computer science and economics is an increasing concern with the word. It passes by many names: logos, logic, bits, bytes, mathematics, software, knowledge, syntax, semantics, code, plan, program, design, algorithm, as well as the ubiquitous "information." In every case, the information is independent of its physical embodiment or carrier

So, it's the word by any other name; but how does that relate to Darwinism?

After having supplied the above quote, O'Leary turns rather mysterious:

But what about DNA?, one might ask. Isn't our DNA a deterministic code that just happened to evolve and create us? Well, the chemistry of DNA is irrelevant to its message. The four DNA code letters - A,C,G,T - do not, in themselves, tell a creature what to be, any more than letters of an alphabet tell you what to write. Additional information does that. For example, the simple nematode worms that survived a recent space shuttle disaster and were returned to their owners have only somewhat fewer genes than humans (20 000 vs. 30 000) - which basically tells you that most of what is really happening is not happening in the genes.

Of course, the letters of an alphabet doesn't tell me, what to write; but the letters in for instance O'Leary's post tell me, what to read, don't they? And how is the 'small' difference between the number of nematode genes and human genes (which is 50% of the number of nematode genes) related to, what is really happening?

Yet another Gilder quote:

Like a sheet of paper or a series of magnetic points on a computer's hard disk or the electrical domains in a random-access memory or indeed all the undulations of the electromagnetic spectrum that bear information through air or wires in telecommunications DNA is a neutral carrier of information, independent of its chemistry and physics. By asserting that the DNA message precedes and regulates the form of the proteins, and that proteins cannot specify a DNA program, Crick's Central Dogma unintentionally recapitulates St. John's assertion of the primacy of the word over the flesh.

It was for some time thought that proteins were the carriers of inheritance, and with the discovery of DNA, it was still discussed, which had which rôle. With Francis Crick's Central Dogma the discussion ended with DNA being the carrier of inheritance, and proteins being encoded in DNA. O'Leary writes that there are four DNA code letters, A,C,G,T. However, these do not encode anything; we need three of them to make, what's called a codon, the actual letter of the DNA code. There are therefore 4*4*4 = 64 different codons, a 64 letter alphabeth. Each codon either encodes an amino acid or is a stop code. There are 20 amino acids, so 64 letter alphabeth of DNA is actually translated to a 21 letter alphabeth, of which the 20 letters, the amino acids, are used in proteins. It is therefore not possible from a protein to reconstruct its gene (the sequence of codons that encoded it), and therefore proteins cannot precede DNA.

So, contrary to O'Leary's statement above, that "what is really happening is not happening in the genes", Gilder follows the general trend by claiming that DNA is the provider of information. 

Perhaps O'Leary has misunderstood Gilders statement that "DNA is a neutral carrier of information, independent of its chemistry and physics"? A statement that by the way is not quite right, but let's just ignore that.

O'Leary does not make a distinction between DNA and genes, while Gilder does not mention genes. However, the way he refers to DNA, he clearly means DNA patterns, not the individuals DNA molecules.

This, interestingly, brings Gilder in exact line with the atheist Darwinist materialist Richard Dawkins, who back in 1986 published The Blind Watchmaker.

On p. 127 of said book, Dawkins writes:

DNA gets the best of both worlds. DNA molecules themselves, as physical entities, are like dewdrops. Under the right conditions they come into existence at a great rate, but no one of them has existed for long, and all will be destroyed within a few months. They are not durable like rocks. But the patterns that they bear in their sequences are as durable as the hardest rocks. They have what it takes to exist for millions of years, and that is why they are still here today. The essential difference from dewdrops is that new dewdrops are not begotten by old dewdrops. Dewdrops doubtless resemble other dewdrops, but they don't specifically resemble their own 'parent' dewdrops. Unlike DNA molecules, they don't form lineages, and therefore can't pass on messages. Dewdrops come into existence by spontaneous generation, DNA messages by replication.

That is, while DNA molecules are material, genes = DNA patterns are not, though each concrete instance needs to exist in a material form. 

For Dawkins as for Gilder, the DNA molecules are carriers of information, an information that is the DNA pattern, which itself is neither physical nor chemical, but apparently, in a Platonistic sense, an idea. An entire genome must therefore, for Dawkins, not be something physical and chemical, but "its architecture of ideas."

Maybe the ID people should study Darwinists a bit more closely, before they run out and claim to have refuted Darwinist materialism?

See also
Gilder, O'Leary, and lactose
The ID dilemma

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A Christian in Satanist clothes